|A Minecraft church. No, my son did not build this.|
I should back up to say that over the past few weeks he has become enthralled with the online building game Minecraft. In this game, players create their own worlds out of square blocks, including land, water, animals, even elaborate buildings. I have not yet fully come to appreciate it, but one evening he lured his father in to create a world together.
After my son had gone to bed, his father continued to play in this new world (which included a red brick school building where my son planned to teach his father how to play). In the course of exploring, my husband got lost in the game. Not metaphorically losing track of reality – literally lost: he had wandered too far away from the school they had created to be able to find his way back. Then he turned off the computer and went to bed.
The next afternoon when my son logged in he discovered that they were not only lost from the school but in perpetual flight above a vast Minecraft ocean. Apparently he panicked and insisted that they delete the world from his account and create a new one. My husband, who was still keen on finding his way back, agreed that they should create a new world to play in together, but insisted on keeping the old one as well.
It was at this point that I arrived and spent about 10 minutes trying to get a clear, non-weeping explanation of his meltdown from my son. Yes, he agreed tearfully, nothing would be hurt by keeping the defunct world around (there is no limit to how many worlds he can create). And yet he continued in hysterics when I told him that we weren’t going to delete it.
He kept reminding me that he was lost, that there was no hope of getting back, that there was really nothing that one could do in this abandoned world. And then he said it all in one tearful cry…
“The world is meaningless!”
My son’s first existential crisis.
Raising a child in the real world today is a constant struggle to define the meaning of life, especially when so much of the world seems to be telling him (and me) that the meaning of life is to be happy. So we structure our children’s lives to create happiness and to limit their experiences of disappointment, shame or failure.
It is an existential fear of my own that we will raise a generation of human beings whose primary goal is to be happy, and the very fabric of society will begin to degrade until life as a community will no longer exist. (Trigger my own anxiety attack)
I admit that I have not read popular Christian writer and mega-church pastor Joel Osteen’s book “Every Day a Friday.” I don’t intend to read it, but as I have heard him describe it, his message is that we should make it our individual goal to create a life where every day feels like Friday. No one is happier than on Friday: Friday is pay day, weekday responsibilities shed, time for yourself to do what you want, freedom to meet your own personal needs for the weekend.
Where is the meaning in that kind of life? Where does meaning come from when happiness is elusive or even unattainable?
In his book “The Parents We Mean to Be: How Well-Intentioned Adults Undermine Children’s Moral and Emotional Development” psychologist and educator Richard Weissbourd writes that we often parent by teaching our children that the most important thing in the world is to be happy, when we should really be teaching them that the most important thing is to be kind.
He goes on to write of how our parenting can deeply shape how our children understand the meaning of life:
The parent-child relationship is at the center of the development of all the most important moral qualities, including honesty, kindness, loyalty, generosity, a commitment to justice, the capacity to think through moral dilemmas, and the ability to sacrifice for moral principles.
Any one of these qualities requires that we relinquish our need to be happy.
I am sure that my son will have much greater existential crises in life as he continues to grow and struggle with how the world works and his place in it.
I am proud to say that we did not delete the meaningless world just to make him happy and to alleviate his frustration. I am less proud to say that the reason he has become so obsessed with this game is because I let him play it in order to make him happy.
We did end the “discussion” with me reminding him that human beings and our relationships are more important than a game, being kind to one another and speaking to each other with respect is more important than getting your way, and that life has more meaning than we can find inside of a computer screen.